Today’s State: West Virginia

Years ago, I went with some young Washington lawyer friends to a cabin they had rented in West Virginia. We left the interstate, turned onto a smaller highway, then a smaller one, and so on, till we were winding our way up a mountain on a one-lane gravel road. Near the top, a broken-down pickup truck blocked our path. The occupants, a beefy, taciturn family, asked us to take them down the mountain to get help, which we did. I can’t remember how it turned out or which of the things I picture when I think of that family—overalls, sunburns, bad teeth—were true. But I know what my friends and I thought: We had wandered into Deliverance.

This is how Washington liberals think of West Virginia: a third-world neighbor. Never mind that its eastern end has become a Washington exurb. Never mind the congressional retreats at the Greenbrier. Outsiders love to mock the state, as Abercrombie & Fitch did three months ago with a T-shirt that said, “It’s all relative in West Virginia.” Liberals were having so much fun making light of West Virginia that they didn’t feel it slipping from their grasp four years ago. While Al Gore was putting his chips on Florida, West Virginia—a state with a 2-to-1 Democratic registration advantage that had voted even for Michael Dukakis—tossed its five electoral votes to George W. Bush, making him president.

Who’s laughing now?

Not John Kerry. He, his wife, and his party are lavishing attention on the Mountain State, determined not to repeat Gore’s mistake. When Kerry clinched the nomination, he announced it in West Virginia. Kerry likes to think he’s reviving a Massachusetts tradition, recapturing the state that locked up the Democratic nomination for the original JFK. But the more you talk to West Virginians, the more you stop wondering how Democrats lost the state four years ago and start wondering how they ever won it.

The New River

Summers County, spread out along the New River Gorge near the state’s southern border, is the swingiest county in West Virginia’s 3rd congressional district *. It voted for the statewide winner in every presidential election since 1980: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Michael Dukakis, and Bill Clinton. The margin of victory never exceeded 1,000 votes. In 2000, Gore lost it by five votes. The road to the county seat, Hinton, crawls along a creek past trailer homes and corrugated metal sheds. Tiny buildings just big enough for a toilet seat are tucked away in people’s back yards. Huge satellite dishes stand out front. This is West Virginia: one foot in the 19th century, the other in the 21st.

If you pass the Citgo where the road leaves the interstate, your next chance at gas is 10 miles away at the Cargo station in Hinton. That’s where I meet Robert, who knows everybody in town. He’s the Paul Newman of the Cargo crew, with blue eyes, sad brows, and a leader’s sense of humor. He and the others who work here talk for hours as friends and customers drop by.

The station echoes the technological paradox outside. It sells nothing but gas. The furniture consists of three plastic chairs and a junk desk that stands empty except for an adding machine. A small ceiling fan offers the only relief from heat. The men who pass through sport crew cuts, chunky necks, gimme caps, and Harley Davidson shirts. Robert’s mouth is a dental nightmare. The place reeks of smoke. An ashtray in the windowsill collects brown Winchesters. The men talk about trellers, doziers, and big trucks. But they also wear cell phones, and the archaic wall-mounted clock that punches their time cards sits next to a digital box that wires credit card numbers thousands of miles away. David, a customer in a NASCAR T-shirt, has been installing satellite dishes (“West Virginia wildflowers”) for 20 years. Paul, a contractor, spits tobacco juice into the trashcan just before informing me that his wife reads Slate.

The men paint a bleak picture. The jobs here pay badly. People are on welfare. Anyone looking for real opportunity goes elsewhere. Maybe that’s why Hinton is marketing itself as a historic town: It’s history. In the 2000 census, West Virginia placed 50th in household income, 48th in education, and first in depopulation.

Numbers like these, along with constant ribbing (the entire state was recently auctioned on eBay), have given West Virginia the nation’s worst inferiority complex. When Abercrombie & Fitch came out with its incest shirt, the Charleston Gazette published an op-ed that accused the company of picking on “economically challenged” states. (It didn’t help that the writer, a native West Virginian, had moved to Massachusetts.) At last weekend’s state Democratic convention, gubernatorial nominee Joe Manchin lamented that West Virginians always “cringe” when they’re asked where they’re from. But under a Manchin administration, he promised, someday they’d be able to say, “I’m from West Virginia. You’ve probably read about us in the New York Times.”

Outsiders don’t have to solicit such witting or unwitting self-deprecation. “Don’t you let nobody tell you West Virginians are ignorant,” Robert jokes as we sit down. “They’re not ignorant. They just don’t know no different.” He pretends that he doesn’t know anybody who knows how to use a phone. Later, a friend quips, “Gotta go get my food stamps,” as he walks out and climbs into an expensive pickup truck. But real poverty isn’t funny. When I ask Robert what he thinks of Bush’s tax cuts, he says the federal government’s bite out of his weekly paycheck has shrunk from $20 to $19.75. The other guys in the station laugh, but Robert’s face is dead serious. “That’s a dollar a month,” he points out.

Gas-station signs

To find out what the Cargo crew thinks about morals, just glance at the station window. “Pray for our troops,” says one sticker displayed there. “I proudly pledge allegiance to one nation under God,” says another. A third says “Marriage =,” followed by a stick-figure man and a stick-figure woman. Customers don’t seem to mind—certainly not the woman who has hand-written “Jesus Loves You” on her truck. The men who come through the station, all of them from Democratic families, speak wistfully of the days when everyone went to church. They want paddling back in schools. Even the most liberal of them thinks abortion should be illegal. They’re outraged at a report in the local paper that Bibles sent to soldiers in Iraq by their families have been returned for violating Muslim sensibilities. But their morals are selective. They’re equally outraged, for instance, that pornographic magazines can’t be sent to the soldiers for the same reason. And at least two of them admit that their fathers “run ‘shine,” meaning illegal alcohol.

Why do the Cargo guys make moral exceptions for horny troops? Because the military overrides all other values. West Virginia has the nation’s fifth-highest percentage of veterans. It calls its roads the “Purple Heart Trail” and the “Veterans Memorial Highway.” It names bridges after sergeants and privates. Billboards everywhere thank the troops. When Bush made an ad accusing Kerry (falsely) of voting against body armor and combat pay, he ran it in West Virginia six weeks before it appeared elsewhere. Democrats work just as hard to demagogue the issue. At last weekend’s convention, Manchin promised veterans a Cabinet-level department in the state government.

The men in Hinton aren’t reading about Iraq in the New York Times. They’re hearing about it from brothers, nephews, co-workers, and friends who are over there or have recently come back. And they don’t like what they hear. They supported the war but now grumble about it. They know men who cried when they were called up for duty, fearing they’d never see their kids again. They know people whose tours of duty were just extended: One has a wife who’s expecting a baby any day. They suspect companies of war profiteering. They expect a draft. “Our boys are getting killed over there for nothing,” says one. And don’t tell them we did it all to help suffering Iraqis. These men see suffering where they live. They want to know why we’re spending money to help Iraqis instead of Americans.

So, they’re going to vote out Bush, right? Wrong. Two of them plan to vote for Kerry, and only one of the two will let me use his name. Robert and his buddy, James, plan to vote for Bush. Paul says he’ll probably do the same. Why? Robert points to the tile on the floor. He asks me to imagine that he’s laid half of it and that somebody else comes along bidding for the rest of the job. The safest course, he reasons, is to let the guy who started the job finish it. The new guy would take too long to figure it out.

Now I get it. Until 2000, West Virginia had voted Republican in only three of the last 18 presidential elections: 1956, 1972, and 1984. What did those elections have in common? They featured Republican incumbents. West Virginians respect authority: religious, military, and political. That’s why the state’s congressional delegation, led by Sen. Robert Byrd, is so entrenched. West Virginia Democrats stick with the party of their fathers unless the GOP nominates an incumbent president, in which case the authority of the White House trumps the authority of family and party. The exception is 2000, when the guys at the Cargo station gave Bush, a neophyte, the five votes he needed to win the county. Why? “He had his daddy” to guide him, says Robert. They trusted the king’s son.

The bad scenario for Kerry is that Democrats here will stick with tradition and re-elect a Republican president. The worse scenario is that Democrats will rethink the tradition that made them Democrats in the first place. Why exactly do people with conservative attitudes about morals, guns, and the military—and an economic interest in the coal industry, a target of environmentalists—habitually vote Democratic? If the guys at the Cargo station start asking that question, Democrats may get their wish of not having to worry about West Virginia anymore—but not in the way they had hoped.

Tomorrow: North and east.

Correction, June 17, 2004: The article originally and incorrectly referred to West Virginia’s southern congressional district, which includes Hinton, as the 1st District. It is the 3rd District. Return to the corrected sentence.